Yael Leibowitz

14 guests: Making Sukkot a time of heritage and wisdom

With a key twist on traditional ushpizin, we enter our sukkahs to sit with the memories of our forebears, and apply the lessons of their experiences to our lives
Ushpizin on our Sukkah wall (Aliza Lipkin)
A sukkah, decorated with paper chains and the 'ushpizin' imprinted on the wall. (Aliza Lipkin)

The world we live in is a complicated place. And as it advances, its pace becomes more frenetic, its background static more distracting, and its moral anchors harder to find.

But once a year, we are granted reprieve from all the diversions. Once a year, we leave our modern, concrete structures, and head out to God’s landscape. We trade in the din and the brightness to which we have grown accustomed, for dim and quietude. We take our place inside billowing, makeshift walls, seclude ourselves with those we love, include those who need, and welcome the memories of our ancestors. We sing their names and their attributes, and we find, as we do, the wisdom that our information-crammed world somehow fails to provide.

We sing about Abraham, and we think about what it means to embrace uncertainty and buoy it with faith. And about offering the ones we love most to something that is so much bigger than they are.

And we sing about Isaac and think about what it means to agree to a lifestyle simply because it was handed down to us. We think about where individuality ends, and consensus begins, and about what it means to be our parents’ children.

But we also think about Jacob, and his struggle to discover his unique place within the conventions that were already established. We think about his years of servitude and realize that the parts of ourselves we try to run from are the very parts that hold us hostage. But also, that we can fight until dawn, and walk away limping, but walk away free.

We sing to Joseph and his majesty, and to the arrogance of youth. And we remind our youth that dreams without humility are just illusions of grandeur. But also, that true remorse can reunite, and that sibling love, even if buried deep beneath years of hurt, never truly goes away.

Moses did not make it to the Promised Land even though his entire life was a journey towards it. So, as we sing his name, we realize all over again how lucky we are to enter at our will, rather than remain outside, peering in.

And his brother Aaron. Whose memory is needed in our world perhaps more than any other. Because our High Priest, granted all the splendor and prestige our religion has to offer, wanted nothing more than peace in our midst.

And finally, David. His passion still pulses from the Psalms. His words have become our songs. At times, that passion was unbridled, and we learn from his mistakes. But so did he, and that is greatness.

The world we live in is a complicated place. But it is also magnificent. And as it advances, so do we. So, we enhance our rituals by drawing from the constructive, thoughtful movements that encircle us. In doing so, we teach the next generation, for whom ritual is most important, that we can evolve, while still maintaining the authentic, sacred character of our beloved traditions. And that that balance is the very secret to our endurance.

So, we invite Sarah into our sukkah as well because she taught us patience and resolution. Because she laughed, and cried, and doubted, and believed, and in doing so, showed us what the religious experience is made of.

And we invite Miriam and her bravery. And as we do, we ask ourselves whether we have what it takes to stand up to injustice, and whether like her, we would be willing to risk it all.

When Deborah steps into our sukkah we sing along with her, the song only she could have taught us to sing. About valor, poise, and allegiance. And about a world made safer when women lead, too.

Hannah also has a song, but it is a gentler sort, borne of gratitude for prayers answered, and pain transformed. We harmonize with her, and we understand that emptiness hurts because it reminds us of who we loved, or for what we still yearn. It reminds us that we are alive.

And then there is Abigail, who carefully crafted words to stand up to violence. She confronted warriors, disarmed them with her tongue, and in doing so protected those who could not protect themselves. So, we think, as we sit with her legacy, whether the words we hurl beget hostility or harmony, compassion, or conflict, and whether, if she were listening in, we would be making her proud.

Huldah the Prophetess took a neglected Torah scroll, dusted it off, and revitalized its ancient words. So, as we prepare to dance around the Torah that has sustained us for thousands of years, we draw from her insight, and shoulder the challenge of revealing our text’s modern resonance.

And on our last day, we welcome Queen Esther. Because no one knew, more than she, about where personal and national fates collide. We sit in the presence of her memory, and ask whether we know, viscerally, as she did, how badly history needs us to take a stand.

The world we live in is a complicated place. So, as we sit with the ancestors who populate our stories, let us invite them to inspire, and challenge, and to compel us think. Let us sing to their memories, and sing to our future, and to God’s landscape, and the billowing walls of our resilience.

About the Author
Yael Leibowitz has her Master’s degree in Judaic Studies from Columbia University. Prior to making aliyah, Yael taught Tanakh at the Upper School of Ramaz, and then went on to join the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught Continuing Education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, and is a frequent lecturer in North America and the United Kingdom.
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